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Sunday, Sep 22, 2019

‘They brought a dead language to life’: Sanskrit is revived, then dies again in MP village

Locals blamed Sanskrit’s decline on caste discrimination and the loss of strong institutional backing.

india Updated: Oct 12, 2017 10:34 IST
Shruti Tomar and Punya Priya Mitra
Shruti Tomar and Punya Priya Mitra
Hindustan Times, Bhopal
Vikram Chouhan, in the white kurta, lamented that Sanskrit had lost popularity in Mohad over the last 20 years.
Vikram Chouhan, in the white kurta, lamented that Sanskrit had lost popularity in Mohad over the last 20 years.(HT Photo/Mujeeb Faruqui)

The village of Mohad in Narsinghpur district seems unremarkable today, but at the turn of the century it attracted curiosity from across the country and around the world. According to residents and media reports from the time, in a single year Mohad became one of the only places in India where most residents spoke Sanskrit.

“Mohad was an inspiring example for all of us in the area,” said Radheyshyam Narolia, 75, a retired deputy director from Madhya Pradesh’s agriculture department. “The way they brought a dead language to life was a rare feat.”

Interviews late last month with more than 50 families in the village showed that Sanskrit is becoming a dead language in Mohad once again. The swayamsevak who initially popularised Sanskrit died without leaving behind a similarly effective successor; alleged caste discrimination has made Sanskrit seem pointless to many Dalits and OBCs, who make up half the population of Mohad; and the state government, which promised to build a Sanskrit school eight years ago, has yet to do anything concrete.

The push for Sanskrit began in 1996. The initial results were swift and startling. According to Vikram Chouhan, the member of the RSS who oversees Mohad, within a year enough residents were fluent in Sanskrit for it to become the “first language” of the village. That also meant that the villagers could read and write, a significant feat for a state with a literacy rate of only 70%.

HT reported on the improbable success of this endeavour in 1997. Back then, Sanskrit classes were held at the village choupal late in the evening, after the women had finished their chores. The sessions continued well into the night. When HT visited, there were 200 people at a single class. There were a lot of laughs, but Hindi was strictly forbidden. In the morning, kids learned the language in school.

As a result, Mohad gained a bit of fame. “When the fervour was at its peak, people from Switzerland and many other countries visited the village,” said Beni Prasad Patel, the sarpanch of Mohad.

It was Sanskrit Bharti, an offshoot of the RSS, which introduced Sanskrit to the village. The effort was led by Surendra Singh Chouhan, whose education at the Benaras Hindu University and large landholdings in Mohad made him a dominant figure locally. Vikram, the RSS member, is his son, and has tried to continue Surendra’s legacy. But "the enthusiasm decreased after the death of Surendra Singh Chouhan, the crusader,” said Patel.

Now only a fading memory of the language lingers: asked “tvam nam kim?” (what is your name?), most residents understand and reply accordingly, but conversation cannot proceed much further. According to Patel, only 150 people of the 5,000 in Mohad can still speak Sanskrit fluently.

Learning Sanskrit might once have seemed an opportunity to move up in society, but people from oppressed castes said they’d come to find the language useless. “There was a time when everybody loved to speak in Sanskrit,” said KS Chandoliya, a 45-year-old Dalit. “Now, we have realised that even if we learn Sanskrit, the language of the brahmins, the upper caste will never accept us as equals.They have problems in making a Dalit a purohit (priest), so why should we support them in popularising their language?”

Among more than two dozen Dalits in Mohad whom HT spoke to, young people were despondent about the prospects of Sanskrit. “I know Sanskrit and I learned it in school,” said Ganesh Jatav, a student in class 11. “I loved the language, but slowly I realised that the language will not help me in getting a job. Also, it is not our language, but that of the upper castes. No one would accept a Dalit as an astrologer or a pandit. We will have to bow down before the upper caste, whatever skills or knowledge we might have.”

Vikram Chouhan has a different explanation for the decline of Sanskrit. "Villagers might feel that caste discrimination led to Sanskrit’s decline, but to me the passion died because of the state government’s indifference. The government announced construction of a Sanskrit school eight years back. It exists only on paper." 

The state government says it is dedicated to promoting Sanskrit, and gives scholarships and other cash incentives to people teaching or studying the language. Yet the Maharishi Patanjali Sanskrit Sansthan (MPSS), which is in charge of implementing the government’s Sanskrit policy, still officially recognises Mohad as a ‘Sanskrit Gram‘ (a Sanskrit-speaking village).

PR Tiwari, the director of the MPSS, expressed surprise at HT’s findings. "We didn't know that people have stopped speaking Sanskrit,” he said. “We are putting a lot of effort to promote the language everywhere. We will check this." 

Anil Soumitra, a state-level member of the RSS and a spokesman for the BJP, echoed Tiwari’s comments. "If it is happening in a model village like Mohad, it is very unfortunate. We will visit the village and try to rectify the problem."

First Published: Oct 12, 2017 07:03 IST